LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
One of this year's breakout performances in an American movie was by a Chinese actress. She made her U.S. debut in the film "The Farewell," playing a grandmother whose family doesn't want to tell her she has cancer. Here she is teaching her granddaughter, played by Awkwafina, how to do tai chi.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FAREWELL")
ZHAO SHUZHEN: (As Nai Nai) Ha.
AWKWAFINA: (As Billi Wang) Ha. Ha.
SHUZHEN: (As Nai Nai, speaking Mandarin).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's already buzz for Zhao Shuzhen. And Thursday, she was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. Here is NPR's Mandalit del Barco.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: We find Zhao Shuzhen at a glitzy holiday party at the art deco Sunset Tower Hotel. Among the guests sipping cocktails, eating hors d'oeuvres and taking in the city views are actors Adam Sandler, Willem Dafoe and the new Batman, Robert Pattinson. Like Shuzhen, all of these stars at indie studio A24's party were nominated for Spirit Awards. And there's talk of more accolades to come.
SHUZHEN: (Through interpreter) It's very colorful. There's a lot going on.
DEL BARCO: Through her Mandarin interpreter, Shuzhen says this is her first Hollywood party and actually her first time in this country. Back in China, she's a big deal. She began acting onstage when she was just 16 years old. After the Cultural Revolution, she says she moved to television roles, shows like "Left Hand Family, Right Hand Love." These days, Shuzhen often plays the role of grandmother, as she did in "The Farewell."
SHUZHEN: (Through interpreter) People have so warmly embraced the film. They were telling me things like how the film reminded of their own relationship with their grandmother. That has really touched me and moved me very deeply.
DEL BARCO: Shuzhen says during the filming, she grew close to her co-star Awkwafina, who plays her granddaughter, Billi.
SHUZHEN: (Through interpreter) Awkwafina, she's just a very sharp and interesting and a very funny person. So on set, for example, she would really crack us up and make us laugh by speaking really random and bad Chinese because her Chinese is not fluent. And she would do things like that to really make us laugh.
DEL BARCO: Back in China, Shuzhen also got a chance to meet the real-life life Nai Nai, the woman at the center of writer-director Lulu Wang's film.
SHUZHEN: (Through interpreter) In real life, Lulu's grandma, she's a very fierce person, a very strong woman, very opinionated. Whereas me, I'm a very soft person. I'm very tender. I'm not quite like that. So I had to really do my best - try to act like that grandma.
DEL BARCO: Actress Diana Lin, who plays Billi's mother in the film, grew up watching Shuzhen on stage and on TV in China. Having worked together before, she urged Shuzhen to take her first role in an American film.
DIANA LIN: We call her, in Chinese, (foreign language spoken) - cat - like a kitty. She's sweet and soft, like a little cat.
DEL BARCO: Lulu Wang says it's a huge honor to have her grandmother portrayed by such a well-known actress.
LULU WANG: She would - just kept smiling and giggling. And I would, you know, push her more in the direction of being this very bossy matriarch. And at first, it was difficult for her because it's not her nature. But by the end of the production, she told me - she said, I'm so happy that, you know, I found this character because it's given me so much confidence that I don't naturally have. And I'm actually quite sad to be leaving this character.
DEL BARCO: At the party, Zhao Shuzhen smiles sweetly and says she's overwhelmed by predictions she'll be nominated for an Oscar.
SHUZHEN: (Through interpreter) I'm just so grateful. I just want to keep thanking people, thanking people, thanking people.
DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALEX WESTON'S "NAI NAI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.